Wayne O'Leary

Mr. Bipartisan

Forget Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and the US Senate’s other GOP Neanderthals. The worst member of the congressional upper house, in terms of harm done over recent times to the Republic and to progressive values, was a Democrat, the just-retired Max Baucus of Montana.

Baucus wins this dubious nod not because of crass ideological histrionics or inane public pronouncements, but because of a propensity to use his seniority and position to wheel and deal to no good ends. Until last month, the almost pathologically bipartisan 6-term centrist ran the powerful and influential Senate Finance Committee, where as chairman or ranking Democrat, he had a hand in every Senate bill of economic significance for the past two decades. Indeed, profiler Ezra Klein, writing in The American Prospect in 2008, called Baucus “arguably the most consequential legislator in America.”

That reputation, based on his committee’s control over critical appropriations and reauthorizations, means Montana’s newly exited senior senator could be going down in history as a legislative giant, a liberal hero like Ted Kennedy. Instead, courtesy of the Obama White House, he’s gone to China as American ambassador, an improbable reward for a career built on unprincipled compromise and duplicity.

It’s a sad commentary on Montana’s Democratic legacy. Once a bastion of Western liberalism, the Big Sky State’s Senate contingent in the past included progressive names like Tom Walsh, investigator of Teapot Dome; Joseph O’Mahoney, crusading chairman of the New Deal’s anti-monopoly Temporary National Economic Committee (TNEC); and Mike Mansfield, admired majority leader of the Great Society Congress. With Baucus, however, liberal Montana hit bottom; whether it can rise again is anybody’s guess.

The question of why Baucus suddenly packed his bags for China is an intriguing one. It may have been a political ploy to allow Montana’s Democratic governor to appoint a replacement ahead of the 2014 election, creating a partisan advantage. It could also have been the senator’s familiarity with China, which he had visited eight times, presumably to look in on our jobs that he helped outsource as a supporter of Chinese membership in the WTO and the establishment of Permanent Normal Trade Relations between the US and Beijing.

Another rumored reason why the administration was anxious to ship Baucus to the Far East was that he’d lately been badmouthing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), calling it potentially “a huge train wreck.” This is ironic in the extreme considering that Baucus was the train’s original chief engineer; in fact, he designed the locomotive and laid the tracks where any wreck will take place.

Democrats who don’t like the ACA as written (and there are many) know exactly who to blame. The Senate version of healthcare reform, which emerged from the Baucus-led Finance Committee with no public option (to please Republicans like Chuck Grassley and Maine’s Olympia Snowe, who ultimately voted against it anyway), became the eventual Obamacare legislation.

Now, Baucus bemoans the ACA’s lack of cost controls, the very purpose of the public option he rejected as not in keeping with bipartisanship. Tragically, Ted Kennedy’s illness and death removed his more progressive Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor from overseeing the bill and allowed Bad Max, the insurance industry’s best friend, to become the skunk at the Democrats’ garden party.

It wasn’t the first time Montana’s double agent played this game; the Baucus record is strewn with sellouts of liberal principle. In 2001, he joined with Republicans to formulate the Bush tax cut for the wealthy. Again, in 2003, he helped Bush and the GOP enact the Medicare prescription drug benefit that turned drug coverage for seniors over to the pharmaceutical industry with no negotiated prices allowed. In 2005, he supported the pro-corporate Bush bankruptcy “reform” bill.

Fast forward to 2014, and this confidant of Republicans had moved on from Snowe and Grassley to find other allies on the right. Most recently, he’d been working in tandem with Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the GOP House Ways and Means Committee, to enshrine corporate-friendly tax and trade policies.

On taxes, the Baucus goal was nothing less than to rewrite the federal tax code for the first time since the Reagan presidency. As usual, the effort was being billed as tax simplification and reform, always the rhetorical prelude to watering down progressive taxation. Baucus himself talked about the necessity of “compromise” with Republicans, who have already rejected anything liable to increase assessments, so any future negotiated reform will inevitably go in the opposite direction.

As time wound down to his departure for China, Montana’s political chameleon concentrated his efforts on corporate taxation. Mindful of Wall Street’s proliferating global interests, Baucus proposed to permanently shelter from the IRS the profits made by American corporate subsidiaries operating abroad except when derived from goods sold directly to the US market, leaving untouched (assuming some local taxes were paid) the increasing proportion of multinational profits acquired by sales in foreign countries. He did suggest taxing the billions in corporate earnings that have been “parked” for years in overseas tax havens (a good thing), but only at 20%, a fraction of the current domestic rate of 35% — itself to be reduced to under 30%.

Baucus’ slap-on-the-wrist corporate-tax overhaul, an expression of his pro-business bias, was to be reinforced by his other farewell crusade, attempted passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement (TPP) by means of fast-track trade promotion authority (TPA); fast track, which would allow this semi-secret sweetheart deal for the corporate multinationals to slide through on a simple up-or-down vote minus inconvenient amendments or congressional discussion, was strenuously pursued by Baucus’ Finance Committee, led by the chairman and his pal conservative ranking Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. More bipartisanship in action.

Fast track (lately criticized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is at last earning his money) has been requested by the Obama White House through its congressional liaison US Trade Representative Michael Froman, the most recent refugee from Citigroup to infiltrate this corporate-top-heavy administration. But TPA’s main congressional water carrier, who needed little convincing, was Max Baucus, and it may just be that his consummated ambassadorship is his just recompense for services rendered. How could we miss you, Max, if you hadn’t left?

Editor’s Note: Baucus resigned his seat Feb. 6 after the Senate confirmed his nomination as ambassador to China. Montana’s Democratic governor appointed his Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D), who was sworn in Feb. 11 as Baucus’ replacement. Baucus’ Finance Committee gavel has gone to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2014


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